Saturday, December 6, 2008

Styles of Perception

What is the visual world composed of? When we look around us, what do we see? Do we see lines or tones? Do we see discreet objects with definite boundaries or a hodgepodge of indistinct splotches merging and melting into one other?

How you answer these questions lays at the heart of how you approach a drawing.

The first drawing interprets the classic diner still life as separate, rational objects bounded by clear outlines. The salt and pepper shakers appear as distinct shapes that could be cut out from the background.

The second drawing is a bit more subjective. The pepper shaker on the right melts into the background a little more, and tones of shadows blend the bases of the objects into the table surface.

The third drawing, made with a brush and watercolor, interprets the world not as a series of definite objects but rather as spots or shapes that come together to suggest forms. The creamer at the lower left almost disappears into its surroundings; we see only a hint of its handle.

This is not merely a matter of style or technique. One approach is not better than another. There’s no right or wrong way to see the world and no right or wrong way to draw it. Different people actually see things differently.

In fact, new research in visual perception suggests that the human retina is not like a camera, but more like a kind of a pre-brain. Some groups of retinal receptors bundle visual information into packets describing linear boundaries. Other receptors bundle information about tonal shapes. These packets are then processed downstream in the visual cortex. The retina transmits data at a rate of 10 million bits per second, which is about equivalent to an Ethernet connection. (link)

The way you see is probably not the way I see, regardless of our training or tradition. The way your retina apportions its visual processing tasks is as unique as your fingerprint. You may see things more in terms of line and I may see things more in terms of tone.

The way our eyes apprehend the world is infinitely mysterious. As artists we need to yank ourselves out of our comfortable habits of perception. We need to grow beyond the easy tricks that worked for us in the past. We need to strive always to see with new eyes.


Bowlin said...

I see what your saying, but would one of these three types of approaches be more appreciated by the larger population?

Jason Peck said...

I understand this post all to well. I have always overly defined every area of my work. The reason, thats simply how I see things, sharp and in focus. even if I look at something that is a few miles away, I have the ability of seeing every last detail. Some may see a tree in the distance with no leaves, and just see a mass of gray, whereas I can sit and count every last branch.

James, since asking you for that critique, I have relaxed a bit. I now realize that I dont have to paint all of the details that I see, but only the ones that matter. I now purposely squint when looking at far away objects, so for me squinting is like seeing with fresh eyes.

Thanks for this wonderful post.

Best Jason

Erik Bongers said...

I remember one person saying about one of my drawings that he liked it because he loved 'all the little details'.
There are also a lot of city-sketchers that make wonderfull city-scapes by just drawing the outline of all forms (windows, etc...) without worrying about the overall perspective.
Typically these drawings tend to get distorted as they progress across the paper.
Nevertheless, we can 'read' these drawings easily and therefor the perspective distortion is not much of a problem.

This seems like the opposite of impressionistic painting, where outlines are completely abandoned and the 'story' is told by just the colors.

But even if we try to 'look with a new eye' to overcome our own 'style of perception', one can never really overcome a personal style completely. Thank God for that!

Susan Adsett said...

Interesting - I wonder how much of it is driven by what we WANT to see. Like Jason, I want to put a lot of detail into my work - but for a completely different reason. I CAN'T see details(I'm very near-sighted)and it frustrates me, so I prefer drawings with clear lines and sharp boundaries between light and shadow. Loose, impressionistic paintings leave me wanting to adjust my glasses.

In my own artwork, I find myself inventing details I know are there somewhere, even though I can't see them. I get a little too obsessed with "getting it right", while at the same time assuming that what I actually see is "wrong". I'm trying to stop this, although squinting doesn't help - I actually see better when I squint. Maybe I should just take my glasses off.

On the other hand, it may have nothing at all to do with physical sight, and everything to do with just how comfortable we are with amibiguity.

Richard Smitheman said...

I have been following your blog for a few weeks now and wanted to thank you for your insights and sharing your great work.

With regard to the post, while there's no doubt we see differently I think a great deal of it comes down to learning to observe with either line or tone in mind. Both can be learned. I think training has more to do with it than you suggested in your post. Since I started studying color recently I have definitely refined and hopefully continue to refine my ability to see in terms of color and tone and less with line which was my comfort zone. Nothing has changed biologically with my eye in that time ( I hope) and yet my perception of color in the world has. I think it really comes down to how we decide to decipher the information coming in and not just a propensity towards one or the other.

Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Hello, James. I saw you now in UN MONDE DE BULLES. Great. Congratulation for your work.

Jen Z said...

I always enjoy the art psychology lessons offered here, I'm curious, where you get your ideas, where do you find all the time to read books (?) and do these drawings/paintings and THEN also upload this stuff in ADVANCE before your trip??? Amazing!
But to get back to the topic, it goes to say by your logic that we will never perceive the world like you do, which I find a bit depressing... Ah well, we can only try!

Erik Bongers said...

This is the link to the JG interview in French:

Click on the first thumbnail (video of 05/12/2008).

Amazing how James can talk French and English simultaneously!

Don Cox said...

The retinas do pre-process the images before passing them on to the visual cortex of the brain. This is similar to a camera converting its RAW image into a JPG, and for the same reason: to reduce the amount of data that has to be handled. _______ Anyone interested in the way the brain interprets images should read Semir Zeki's book "Inner Vision" (1999). Professor Zeki is a distinguished neurophysiologist with a strong interest in art.

Michaela said...

Nice post, James!

Do you suppose this explains why some people like badly done art?

James Gurney said...

Don Cox, Yes, I'm an admirer of Semir Zeki's work, and if you look back on July 25th's post on Neuroaesthetics, I did an interview with Professor Zeki.

Erik, thanks for letting me know about Un Monde de Bulles!

Jen, the blog posts I prepared for Jeanette didn't take long. She did most of the work.

Richard, you make an excellent point, and I suppose from a strictly scientific perspective we will never know for certain how differently different people see the world. Much of the differences in people's art has to be attributed to training and acculturation.

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